This month The Electronic Intifada, an independent online publication about Palestine and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, marks its eighth anniversary. When we started, the co-founders did not realize that we were engaging in an early experiment in what is now called “new media” or “citizen journalism” before those terms were coined.
EI built on earlier pioneering uses of the Internet by Palestinians and their allies who for the first time had the means to communicate with each other, and with Palestinians inside the homeland, circumventing enforced separation and pervasive media censorship. The Internet provided me, as a Palestinian who grew up in the Diaspora, with a real sense of community, connection and empowerment. It became in one sense a virtual country where Palestinians could meet, debate and even coordinate joint action in defense of their rights. Many of the people whose work I hold in highest regard I first met online.
Palestinians readily took to the Internet because their narratives and analyses were — and still are — systematically shut out of the mainstream media. The Internet brought the cost of communication down: you no longer needed to own a TV network or a newspaper to get your story out. At first, we used the Internet to answer back to what we saw as unresponsive and biased media, but eventually we saw the opportunity to create our own alternatives, providing platforms for many talented writers inside and outside Palestine. Although analysis and criticism are crucial roles, EI for its part has also sought to foster original reporting on every aspect of Palestinian life and culture. It’s a tough struggle with limited resources, but the response shows it is worthwhile.
We are only one of many sister efforts; Palestinians inside Israel — a community often forgotten and excluded even by other Palestinians — have also used the internet to create independent media such as bokra.net and arabs48.com, important sources of information, for example, during last year’s anti-Arab pogroms in Acre. Bloggers in Gaza have succeeded in reaching a global audience, breaking the media blockade imposed by Israel.
When Israel began its massacres of Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip on 27 December, EI saw its readership leap almost ten-fold to more than 25,000 unique visitors per day principally in the United States and Europe. Many of our readers were ordinary citizens seeking alternatives to the propagandistic and monotone coverage available in the mainstream. Moreover, our audience disproportionately includes educators, activists, diplomats and journalists, influential users who greatly multiply our reach and impact by spreading and republishing our work. One crucial and largely invisible role we play is as a resource to mainstream journalists who frequently contact us for background information or for assistance in reaching out to people on the ground.
Today, the traditional media model is in crisis as staffs are slashed and coverage of international issues becomes increasingly cursory and shallow. In this sense EI and other independent Internet-based media projects have an advantage. We do not try to emulate the old newspaper model — covering everything from crosswords to sports to local and international affairs. Rather, we specialize: we cover Palestine, but we try to do it thoroughly, professionally and transparently. This is especially important when even gold standard media, like the BBC, appear to have succumbed to organized campaigns from pro-Israel pressure groups and offer up shallow, hyper-cautious coverage designed more to avoid criticism of “pro-Palestinian” bias than to truly enlighten the audience.
The Internet has been important for disseminating information, but also for organizing. An oft-heard complaint among Palestinians and solidarity activists is that Palestinians lack a centralized leadership with a unified message. Perhaps precisely because Palestinians are a dispersed, stateless community, they have found the Internet an ideal medium for organizing and networking. Almost all the information I receive about the growing campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions, for example, comes via the Internet. And it is online and not in the mainstream media that a vigorous uncensored debate is occurring about crucial strategic questions, like what Palestinian national goals should be given the failure of partition and the “two-state solution.” During the Israeli attack on Gaza, Facebook and other social media sites like Twitter became primary sources for exchanging information about solidarity events and demonstrations.
By contrast, well-publicized Israeli efforts to use the Internet (for example the video-sharing site YouTube) to disseminate state and military propaganda largely failed to gain traction. This is not because Israelis do not have the skills or resources to master the medium, but because ultimately the truthfulness and values of the message still matter and on that front Israel is fighting an unwinnable battle.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published by bitterlemons-international.org on 26 February 2009.